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France rejects talks with Balkan hopefuls on EU membership

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France rejects talks with Balkan hopefuls on EU membership
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France has rejected talks on expanding the EU into the Western Balkans despite the European Commission’s call for the accession process to begin.

The decision means dreams of entering the European Union may be fading for Albania and North Macedonia.

"I regret very much that member states could not take a decision," top EU official dealing with the bloc's neighbourhood, Johannes Hahn, said at a ministerial meeting in Luxembourg. "It's not a moment of glory for Europe."

Hahn added that the EU must "restore" its credibility in Western Balkans and "live up to our commitments. North Macedonia and Albania have done their homework and implemented painful reforms," after the EU states did not reach a consensus on the countries' membership for the third time in a year and a half.

But France stayed adamant in their stance against starting any accession talks for the Balkan countries.

Amelie de Montchalin, France's European affairs minister said there was "no way forward" before reform in how candidate countries are vetted on EU targets, which include economic policy, human rights, and the rule of law was put into place.

"The first thing we need to talk about is how Europe must reform the way it does enlargement and negotiations," de Montchalin said, calling the process "an endless soap opera". "Is the process efficient? From our point of view, no."

Stressing their position, a French presidential official at the Elysee said Emmanuel Macron's government would not agree to open the talks now.

"These countries will be part of the European Union one day... but it is too early to open the legal process towards enlargement," the presidential official said.

France argues that the EU is already facing too many challenges such as Brexit, migration, security threats by Russia, to let two more Balkan states into the bloc.

This clashes heavily with Berlin's stance, who's very much in favour of enlargement.

A German government official said it was a priority matter for Germany, which will hold its annual summit with France on Wednesday.

"Chancellor Angel Merkel will raise the issue with Macron on Wednesday," the official said, adding that she would also raise the matter at a summit of all 28 national leaders in Brussels on Thursday and Friday. "It is a... strategic question for the EU."

EU's enlargement policy under peril?

Political scientist Florian Bieber said frostiness towards letting new members in could “undermine the credibility of the EU."

“Observers in the region see France and The Netherlands’ policy as not being fair and motivated by domestic politics and stereotypes,” Bieber said. "This undermines the EU as being a fair player and having clear criteria, especially since the commission has given the green light for negotiation."

Bieber stressed that this kind of attitude will likely send a negative signal to North Macedonia and Albania's governments who might think it's not worth making difficult compromises if they won't be accepted in the bloc.

"Especially for North Macedonia who worked so hard to resolve the name dispute," said the political scientist.

This attitude is also sending a message to Serbia and Kosovo who have the biggest open issue in the region, said Bieber, adding: "Why should either country make a difficult deal when the EU isn't able to give anything in return?"

Read More: Could delays to Balkan enlargement undermine the EU?

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